Reform of immigration laws, legalization of gay marriage and a man named Barack Hussein Obama re-elected to the White House; on the face of things, America is becoming more tolerant and more inclusive.
But an interesting new book called "Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People" demonstrates that attitudes - and anxieties - about age, economic class, ethnicity, (dis)ability, gender, race, religion, sexuality and more shape not only our personal judgments but also extend to overarching cultural judgments about other people's abilities, character and potential. This can and does have a profound impact on access to opportunity.
Two leading psychologists - both with ties to the University of Washington - have developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to capture the ways in which unconscious bias (our "blind spots") affect our perceptions of one another and the world in which we live.
Mahzarin R. Banaji was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who went on to teach at Yale and now is a professor at Harvard University. Anthony G. Greenwald was educated at Yale and Harvard and now teaches at the University of Washington.
Since they introduced the IAT, over 14 million assessments have been conducted.
Early on in "Blind Spot," the authors provide samples from the IAT and encourage readers to self-administer these simple tests to learn more about their own hidden biases. The exercises involve grouping objects and photographs into categories.
Unfortunately, in a couple of the tests reproduced in the book, the quality of the photos is murky and the objects are difficult to identify.
Also, the tests for racial bias are posited on the differences between white and black facial features, a construct that seems starkly outdated, given the racial and ethnic diversity in many areas of the United States and Europe today.
Still, there are insights to be drawn.
The authors demonstrate that many biases begin in infancy. From birth, our brain works to identify our primary caregivers and to determine whom we can trust. Within months, the majority of infants show definite preferences for women over men, same-race over other-race, and those who speak a familiar language over those who do not. These early associations embed deeply in our brains.
Although additional layers of experience produce more complex and conscious decision-making as we mature, Banaji and Greenwald show that those early, ingrained habits of thought continue to operate as sometimes very influential but subconscious biases.
These can have powerful impacts on what we like or dislike, whom we hire, how we vote or what we remember when asked to serve as an eyewitness.
With globalization, society is changing almost faster than we have the capacity to imagine. The imperatives for group identity - us versus them - are changing as well.
"Blind Spot" doesn't cover all the territory one might desire, but it does raise some interesting questions and points the way to some promising and surprisingly modest interventions that could reduce hidden and harmful biases.
Here's to peace on Earth!
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org